NORTH NEWTON, KAN. – For almost 40 years, from 1923-1962, Walter H. Hohmann taught music and directed choral groups at Bethel College.
In a distinguished career that also included writing choral compositions and co-editing the 1940 Mennonite Hymnary, one of the certain highlights was the Mennonite A Cappella Choir’s performance under Hohmann’s direction in the summer of 1935 at the California Pacific International Exposition in San Diego. There, Bethel’s mixed-voice chorus won a medal for excellence in performance. The medal is now on display in Bethel College’s Fine Arts Center lobby.
The music tradition that Hohmann helped to establish at Bethel continues, and conducting is an important part of it. William Eash, professor of music and director of the Bethel College Concert Choir, Men’s Ensemble and Women’s Chorus, has been teaching the conducting class since he came to Bethel College in 1999.
For the most recent incarnation of the class, Eash tried something new – team teaching with a faculty member whose conducting concentration is in instrumental rather than vocal music. Richard Tirk, assistant professor of music and director of the Bethel College Sinfonia and Wind Ensemble, had major responsibility for teaching instrumental conducting with Eash concentrating on choral.
“This way, the students got to work with two different conductors,” Eash says. “There are almost as many conducting styles as there are conductors.”
Eash and Tirk divided the content of the class – which had about 10 students this last time – into three main parts. In the first, the students learned technique. In the second, they focused on practical application. The students looked at the work of various conductors, helped by field trips to Wichita Symphony performances, and journaled about their observations.
In the third segment, the students prepared sections of Handel’s Messiah and held an in-class competition with the winners getting to conduct part of the annual college-community Messiah sing-along in December. Each student also completed a choral or instrumental conducting project.
An important focus of the class is leading congregational singing, Eash says. “There are not as many people as there once were who are able to lead singing in congregations,” he says. “One of our texts for conducting class is Hymnal: A Worship Book [used in most Mennonite congregations]. Everything you do on a podium is the same as when you are in front of the congregation – starting, stopping, using conducting patterns, taking breaths, working with the accompanist and so on. It’s all the same.”
Joel Linscheid, a junior from North Newton and a saxophonist, says, “Learning the basics of conducting helped me immensely as a musician. Not only did it give me a greater appreciation for conductors, but it helped me appreciate the complexity of orchestral and vocal music.
“Learning to conduct helped me as a performer to see, hear and understand aspects of the music I hadn't realized before,” Linscheid adds. “I plan to be a music educator, and conducting class gave me a foundation on which to build as I begin to develop my skill at leading an ensemble.”
Walter and Elsbeth Hohmann’s son Rupert, who taught and conducted instrumental music (he is a violinist) and opera at Bethel from 1957-62, would like to make sure that interested students can have a well-rounded conducting experience like Linscheid’s well into the future. Rupert Hohmann, of North Newton, recently gave a gift that established the Walter H. Hohmann Choral Conducting Award both to honor his father and, he hopes, to make funds available to pay a student conductor who will assist the choral director.
“This award identifies that conducting is important,” says Eash, who with Karen Bauman Schlabaugh, professor of music and chair of the music department at Bethel, will select the winning student once the endowment is established well enough to award at least $500 a year (which requires a minimum of $10,000 as principal).
“Conducting is at the pinnacle of music, of what musicians do,” Eash continues. “One semester of conducting class gives you lots of information and opportunities to practice. [A funded student assistantship] will give an upper-level student who’s really interested more chances to work at it. It will reward a student who has talent and has applied him- or herself. Conducting is 90 percent organizational – it means preparing the score, selecting music, and so on. Everybody knows if the conducting is good or bad but not many know what went into it to make it so.”
Rupert Hohmann says he hopes that Bethel alumni who remember singing in choirs with his father and other able conductors will want to contribute to the scholarship so that Bethel College’s choral music conducting tradition lives long. And who knows – after more than 70 years, maybe there will be another medal for “excellence in performance.”
To contribute to the Hohmann Choral Conducting Award fund, contact Fred Goering at 316-284-5226, email@example.com.
Bethel College is a four-year liberal arts college affiliated with Mennonite Church USA. Founded in 1887, it is the oldest Mennonite college in North America. Bethel is known for its academic excellence and has been named a Top Tier college by U.S. News & World Report every year since 1998. For more information, see the Bethel web site at www.bethelks.edu.